With microprinting, a library in every living room would be able to contain the entire written record of humanity.

Where Will the Books Go?

by John Rader Platt, 1962

Physicists recently have been discussing a question that is going to be of interest to every literate person: How small a book can we make—and still read? Like many of the physicists’ questions, this one may seem merely microscopic and clever, but it bears the seeds of immense social change.

Already, of course, we are in the early stages of the microbook revolution1. Business records, library copies of back issues of newspapers, thousands of Ph. D. dissertations, and many tens of thousands of “unpublished” and mimeographed research reports for government agencies are now on microfilm. This method gives a reduction of 40 o 60 times the area of each page when it is photographed on standard 35-millimeter film. A second and higher degree of reduction is offered by microcards, which are coming into use in many libraries. On these, each page of a book is reduced in area by 500 to 1,000 times, so that the whole book can be printed on an ordinary-sized library catalogue card.

But why stop here? These reductions are still quite trivial compared to a third degree of reduction that we might get by going to the fundamental “optical limit.” This is what is used in the “microdot” system, which has already been effective as an espionage device. In this scheme, a page of print is shrunk photographically down to the smallest size at which the individual letters can still be read through a high-powered optical microscope. The reduction in size form ordinary printing can be as much as 500 to 1,000 times in height and width, so that each letter and each page and each drawing and photograph is reduced in area by as much as one million times.

In this way, a whole sheet of spy data can be put into a “microdot” small enough to be pasted, say, on top of a single comma, or period, in an, otherwise, harmless text, where it may, often, pass unnoticed, by all except, perhaps, the most gimlet-eyed of censors.

Ultramicroscopic Books and Libraries

This microscopic printing was the limit, I said? Yes, but only the optical limit. A fourth degree of reduction is now possible that can go as far beyond this as the hydrogen bomb goes beyond the atomic bomb.

Five or six years ago, the theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman of the California Institute of Technology gave a talk to the American Physical Society, which he called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”2 He pointed out that organic life is able to store its genetic information right at the ultimate molecular level, “printing” it in the form of long “coded” chains of atoms in the chromosomes. Why shouldn’t we also try to approach this level with out intellectual information, by storing our words and pages at least near the limit of magnification of the electron-microscope? This would not be quite down to the level of molecular structure, but it could easily be “ultramicroscopic,’ say 100 times smaller—and perhaps in a few years 1,000 times smaller— than the limit of the optical microscope.

To make this suggestion concrete, Feynman proposed that we could “write” or “print” on a thing metal film by “etching” it away with a fine controlled “pencil” of electrons. A pencil 50 to 100 angstroms in diameter could write letters 300 to 500 angstroms high—that is, about one or two millionths of an inch. In germany, recently, the physicist G. Möllenstedt proved the method would work and published an electron-microscopic picture of his initials—”G.Mö.”—which he wrote on a metal film with an electronic pencil 80 angstroms wide.

With a little further work along these lines we could easily reach an electron-microscope reduction by 100,000 times in each dimension, so that an ordinary page of print would shrink to about 1 micron by 2 microns in area. One square millimeter—the area of the head of a pin, which for years has been the cliché of comparison in all such discussions—could then hold 1,000 books of 500 pages each. An ordinary sheet of paper represents about 20,000 of these millimeter areas, so that it would then hold all of the 20 million or so different books that are supposed to be contained in all the world’s libraries. Or if we stack all these millimeter areas on top of each other, using metal films about 250 angstroms thick like those sometimes used in electron-microscope work, we would theoretically have a stack only about one-half millimeter high. This means, as Feyman emphasizes, that all the written knowledge in the world could then be stored inside the head of a single pin. An ultramicro-universalium. Hard to get at, perhaps, but what a pin!

And if, as he says, the library at Bogotá burned down, they wouldn’t wail over their irreparable loss: they would simply say to the Library of Congress, send us another pin!

Actually, we may never have to compress our knowledge to this extent, but the possibilities offered are tantalizing. Are we now printing too many books and magazines, newspapers and reports, and forms in quintuplicate for filing? Many people think so, Robert Graves has even suggested that to recover our sanity we should abolish all paper and forbid anyone to have writing materials except poets. (He is a poet.) But the example of the pinhead library shows that we could have been publishing ten or a hundred times as much as we have been and our total production would still fit inside, let us say, the head of a thumb-tack. At this rate, we could go on writing and printing for a million generations and still not even take up the volume of a big shelf of books today. When we begin to imitate the methods of organic life, we find out what the efficient storage of information really means.

And to Mr Graves’s selective whimsy, I would reply that each of us has his own kind of poetry, his own corner of human communication where he wants more, not less: the devout his devotional writings, the sociologist his correlations and insights, the physicist his potent texts. Put them all together and do they not add up simply to the sum of human discourse again?

Once you see that there is room for it all, you begin to wonder, indeed, if we should not publish much that we do not. In my universal library I want to have everything. All the letters in the attics, all the rejected manuscripts, all the “unpublished” reports, all the interoffice memos with ideas in them. Index them properly and cross-index them, so that we can find them when we want them—without wading through them when we do not!—and each may someday have its important little drop to contribute to the interrelated stream of human thought.

See, things are slipping into perspective already! It is only another cubic millimeter or so!

Will We Ever Like Them?

The ultramicrobooks I have described are probably unnecessarily extreme for the moment, but I believe that the simpler microbooks, at our third, optical-microscope level of reduction, are already a foreseeable development.3 I think it is interesting to note what becomes possible even at this level and how it may change our reading habits and attitudes. The conversion to microcopies is already coming fast because the sheer physical volume of full-sized “readable” books and documents is what makes them expensive to handle, to mail, or even to store on shelves for long periods. Any kind of microstorage cuts down on such costs, in library stacks as well as business files. The inconvenience of reading microcopies in a projection machine, or even the expense of making an occasional full-sized photographic copy, therefore becomes bearable for the masses of material not needed very often.

Microcopying is also being widely adopted as insurance. Much of the learning of the classical world has been lost to us through time and fire—much of Archimedes and most of Aeschylus and Sophocles, for example; and almost all of Sappho, who had been esteemed the greatest poet of the Western World for a thousand years. In those days, copying was by hand and expensive, and copies were few; and perhaps they all went up together when the library at Alexandria burned, with its hundreds of thousands of volumes, during Caesar’s invasion, or when the remaining “pagan” books were put to the torch in the time of Saint Gregory Nazianzen. Low-cost microprinting, by which unique documents and even whole libraries can be put in a small space and protected, promises to make the preservation of our learning much more certain. A pin in the lapel of a simple tourist may be able to cross all borders and survive all bookburnings.

The trouble is that the advantages of microstorage are institutional, while its disadvantages are personal. We have come to enjoy the sensory pleasures we have associated for the past few hundred years with the life of the inte1lect—the pleasures of browsing among the shelves, of handling real books and smelling the print, of flipping through the pages to look at the pictures or the endings, or even of turning down the page corners or writing vigorous rebuttals in the margins. Our big libraries have already made bookreading a formal chore, with their forbidding circulation desks and their elaborate call-card systems and long delays. Some of us may fear that if we now have to read microbooks only on projection screens, the literate pleasures will vanish completely. It may be research, but it is not reading.

Actually, of course, the libraries will continue to have space for about as many full-sized books as they ever had. What microcopies will do is permit libraries to add a great deal of rarer material to their collections—for those who are interested in seeing it even in microform—without having to expand the buildings. Can any library-lover object to that? What is needed may simply be some new inventions, some improvements in projectors and film-handling, so that microfilm could be projected on a well-lit, well-focused screen in front of a comfortable chair, with simple controls at hand for “selecting books” and “turning the pages.” If such a “microbook reader” were really pleasant and easy to use, every home would begin to want one and every library would want dozens; and we all might begin to prefer getting our books, and reading them, in the light, inexpensive microfilm form.

In history, we have gone from picture hieroglyphs, and cuneiform writing with a stylus on clay and stone tablets, to writing with ink on papyrus rolls; then to vellum books about 2,000 years ago; to paper books about 1,200 years ago; to printing with movable type about 500 years ago; and in the last few decades to many diversified methods of printing and photocopying. Is any one of these historical methods uniquely precious in the physical form it takes? Probably each has seemed so, to a generation brought up to respect it. I can imagine a time when the Minoan palace warehouses were bursting at the seams with baked clay records, but when a dedicated record-keeper nonetheless would show a good deal of resistance to the new papyrus scrolls. With their long inscriptions written in streaks of fading ink paste on a thin thin rolled-up inflammable sheet, they must have seemed terribly complicated, impermanent, inaccessible, and expensive to a man accustomed to the simplicity and solidity of clay tablets. We feel much the same way about microfilm today. But we must remember that what is precious is not the physical “artifacts” of a system of writing but the “mentifacts,” the human communications they contain. When our books change into new forms, children brought up to love the things of the mind will come to treat these forms with the same feelings of respect, familiarity, and pleasure that we have had for the old ones.

Human Knowledge on the Desk Top

And then we will have real microlibraries. At the opticalmicroscope level of reduction, all those 20 million books in all the world’s libraries could be put on a desk top, or in a cabinet beside the record player. It would be worth spending a lot for. The present microfilm and microcard reductions may not have gone quite far enough to open up the big market that this smaller size could reach. Are you a student? A doctor? Do you need some obscure Polish journal, an old book, or a patent? You need not go to a special University collection or to the John Crerar Library. Look right on your desk. The journal ceases to be obscure, and specialized human knowledge ceases to seem inaccessible.

A few words about the conceivable dimensions and possible mechanisms and costs of such a development may help convince us how close it is to being practical and profitable. With an optical-microscope system permitting a reduction in area of about one million times, our 20 million volumes could be photocopied into 20 average volumes, about half the size of a standard encyclopedia. (Even if the copies were made 10 or 20 times larger in area, to simplify technical problems such as the optical tolerances and the heat of the projector, they could still fit into a big desk or bookcase.) Each sheet in our hypothetical 20 volumes might contain, say, 2,000 books of 500 pages each; and each volume 500 such sheets, or one million books; with a total of 10,000 sheets in all the 20 volumes, about the number in an encyclopedia today.

We would want to keep the sheets inside a cabinet, of course, to avoid dust and fingerprints; and it would be extremely important to keep them in proper order, indexed to some standard system like the Library of Congress system, so that anyone could locate quickly the sheet he wanted and the book he wanted on it. (At the level of reduction I am talking about, a book would be about the size of a single letter on an ordinary page. Is one particular letter so hard to find?) In more expensive installations, a mechanical selector like those in jukeboxes might be used for selecting a sheet and positioning it under the projection microscope automatically when its number is dialed; this would prevent disarrangement and damage from handling the sheets.

The kind of sheets I am talking about would not necessarily be sheets printed in rectangular array like book pages, but might instead be strips of tape, rolled or folded, or perhaps disks, according to what is mechanically simplest. The breaking up of the linear line of thought into “pages” and “lines” of print has always depended on the technology of book construction. It was different in scrolls and books, and it may be different again in microbooks as they become perfected. Someday, also, it might be technologically simpler or more flexible to have electronic scanning of the microbooks rather than optical projection.4 Scanners that could project a page onto any television screen in the house; in the living-room, the play-room, or the bedroom, may be in the offing. One can imagine our reader of the future in his easy chair or lying in bed, with the control box at his fingertips, roaming on the screen in front of him, anywhere he wishes in the world’s literature. There will always be a book for insomnia, something more real, more bizarre, more concentrated, or more far-flung than anything the ordinary television drama can ever offer; and he won’t have to go and get the book during library hours; and he won’t have to return it in two weeks.

What would such a dream library cost? Probably a few hundred dollars for a projection microscope, at medical-microscope or slide-projector prices. Probably a few hundred dollars for the 10,000 microprinted sheets, if they were “contact prints” made from master sheets, at costs comparable to present costs for contact photocopies. (The fine-grained film costs more, but mass production should bring it down.) Probably a few hundred dollars per user—if there were, say, 200,000 or more professional users—£or copying all the 20 million books onto the master sheets, at present copying rates. Perhaps a thousand dollars or so for a special storage rack with a mechanical selector, allowing for the fact that such a mechanism must be delicate and precise, but also for the fact that there should be economies in mass production.

And certainly we should allow comparable sums, maybe a thousand dollars or two, for royalties and copyrights to permit recent and current books to be microprinted in these desk libraries. Add it all up and if these “iffy” estimates are not too far off, the total cost per Universal Library might then be in the three-to-six thousand dollar range.

This could cost far less and be worth more to many of us, and might have more buyers, than those desk-top electronic computers that have been talked about for years. The sum is not much more than many students and professional people pay for books and journals over, say, a twenty-year period, and is much less than the cost of a reading room or study in a new house, so that such a library system might be built into many houses and apartments, much as high-fidelity systems are built in today. My guess is that there might be more than half a million doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and teachers in the United States who might buy such a microlibrary on the installment plan at this price. After all, it would contain in one package all those expensive medical books, all the texts and back volumes of: scientific journals, all the encyclopedias; and everything else, too. Plus all the library apparatus of catalogues, guides, and indexes’ to help find things in all the other books you would now own. ‘

At this price, a desk-top library, or several of them, would be a “must” for newspaper publishers, industrial companies with patent or reference problems; and every grammar and high school and library over the world. However many the initial number of users, they would grow over the years as the easy looking-up of answers of all kinds began to be taken for granted. To finance the initial costs, such a system might be developed in stages, starting with technical literature, where the first users might be willing to pay more and where royalty and copyright problems might be less serious; the cost of completing the humanities and historical sections might then be relatively small. From a national point of view, even, the value of having a complete Library of Congress within reach of every student, teacher, and scientist might be comparable to the value of our great highway systems, and the initial development might be deserving of similar government support. These thoughts suggest that a more careful cost and market analysis might be worth making, by photographic and microscope manufacturers, publishers, libraries, government agencies, and scientists, to see whether complete microlibraries of this kind may not represent a billion dollar market simply awaiting development.

Where will the books go? Where everybody can read them— which is where they have always belonged.

Totality And Selection

At this point I must make a confession. I have spent this much space in speculating on these technical and commercial aspects, not because I am so much interested in the details, which might be quite different from what I have imagined, but because the desk-top library is an especially graphic image to keep in mind in trying to get a real feeling for some of the problems connected with the scope and growth of human knowledge. It is equivalent to taking us up to a high place from which we can see it all. Just as when we first get a view of our whole city from a nearby hill or from a plane, we suddenly see the relations of the parts and the true size of man’s intellectual achievements at a single glance—something we saw before only house by house and street by street.

It is only when you consider seriously the possibility of owning, of having at your fingertips, and being able to read in your own chair, all the world’s literature and learning, that you can actually begin to think of this knowledge as a whole and see what our future attitude toward it may be like as we as a race grow more mature. The actual users of microlibraries, when they finally do come along, will grow up in the daily presence of this totality. They will be reminded continually of just what is before them, and of how complex it is; and as a result will begin to use it in a masterful way almost unimaginable for our present day scholars, buried as they are in some corner of it, surrounded by their physical acres of library stacks.

Consider how your own reactions might change, step by step, if you were a scholar or layman in 1970 or 2070, as you began to get used to having at hand, all the time, anything you wanted to know that human beings know. When you get your first Universal Library, very likely you will hurry to dip into it here and there—to find all the entrancing and unavailable books you have not read before. Probably for a while you will also be fascinated in looking at all the subjects~microbrowsing—on any sheet you open to, and reading samples of the ones that look interesting or have interesting pictures. This is the way a bright twelve-year-old acts when his family gets its first adult encylopedia, and it is not a bad way of exploring and getting the feel of how to use the system. But after a few days you will come to realize, as he does, that at almost every point the material is too hard or too trivial or not really interesting, and that certainly there is too much of it. And you will begin to use the library more and more selectively and purposefully, to read specific things only when you are referred to them, or when a question comes up, or when your interest is aroused.

At about this point, with the microlibrary, you will also begin to realize something new: namely, how fast additional human discourse is coming in. The 300,000 or so new titles per year that the Library of Congress now adds to its stacks will double our 20 Universal Volumes in a generation or so. And they do not even include all the material published under old titles—the magazines and newspapers and the 800,000 new scientific articles per year, with 600 new medical articles every day. All this adds up to a new Addition Sheet with the contents of 2,000 ordinary-sized books every day or two. Not much in terms of the pinhead library we talked about earlier, but staggering in individual terms. When the Addition Sheets begin to arrive regularly in the mail, you will be continually reminded not only that you cannot read everything ever written, but that you cannot even keep up with one-thousandth of the new material being added every day. And this is as true for the scientist, the philosopher, or the scholar as it is for the layman.

We begin, then, to wonder seriously: How much can an intelligent man know, and how much should he try to know, of previous or current human learning?

From our present vantage point we see that the number of books a man can digest in a lifetime is very small. A vigorous editor or book critic may scan four books in a day, or perhaps 1,000 a year. But for reading and digesting articles or books worth reading, the rate is much lower, and the average literate adult probably cannot absorb more than two to four books per week, even including those in his own specialty. If we say 160 books per year for 50 years, or 8,000 books, we will be describing a very bookish lifetime.

What it adds up to is four of the microprinted sheets out of the 10,000 in our Universal Library.

We realize suddenly that even the men most famous in history for their learning could not have known from their own reading more than a microscopic fraction of the lore of their times. The supposition that there was a time when a man could “know everything” is one of those Great Men myths that worshippers use to make their contemporaries seem small and themselves seem excusable.

The wisest philosophers, Socrates and Kant, probably fell short of reading their 8,000 books; they were too busy thinking. (And in Socrates’ day, 8,000 would still have been only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of books that were in the Greek libraries.) The “universal men,” Bacon, Leonardo, and Goethe, did not have time for their 8,000; they were too busy working. Even the great encyclopedists, Aristotle and Diderot, could scarcely have had time for their 8,000, in view of the time that they must have spent at their own writing.

Most of us today are omnivorous readers—or scanners—of newspapers, magazines, current books, and even encyclopedias. We were brought up reading. We were brought up to think it is good, and it is. Indeed I suspect that millions of us read more than any of the great men of the past. But do we profit more from it?

The trouble is that we were not brought up selecting. This is the wisdom of the wise men; not that they knew, but that they chose. It is a wisdom anyone can practice. We are harassed and hypnotized by print. But it is time to stop being passive about how we spend our minds. Are you not frightened by the thought of that long path of newsprint unrolling ahead of you down the years? Put some other kind of print beside your coffee cup. After you have read some of the newspaper, like an intelligent citizen, read something that touches your real interests more closely, like an intelligent human being.

There is no need to be all grim and serious about this, of course. We all have different jobs to do, and different intellectual hungers, and we all need different kinds of things to read at different times; from whodunits to history, from Pogo to the Perennial Philosophy. Often, nothing will restore our sanity like gales of laughter. Nevertheless, it is salutary to ask yourself when you next reach for a book, Is this one of the 8,000—or the 4000 or the 2,000—I really want to build into my life? It clarifies your choices wonderfully.

And why not 4,000 or 2,000? Since the most a man can read is trivial anyway in comparison with the total human library, why not enrich yourself by spending more time and thought on just the 80 per year or the 40 per year that are most relevant to your own condition and purposes? The original references, not the texts. (You could think, in between.) The original authors, not the critical reviews. (You could live, in between.) The original poets, not the discussions of poetry. (You could write, in between.)

The Need For Judgement

All this is a considerable oversimplification, of course. How does a man know what he would profit most from, when choosing his reading? He must get advice and read reviews and decide whose judgment he trusts. How does he know where to find it? By looking it up in the indexing systems and hoping they are accurate and complete. How does he know what his own interests really are? Ah, there’s the problem. By self-exploration, in the light of the challenges he gets from being interested in what he reads. It is all a cumulative problem, with another step in self-development after every round. But we see that evaluation, selection, and indexing are all intertwined; and the user of the desktop library will be reminded of that every day.

The indexing problem is of the greatest concern today, especially with the flood of new material and the masses of microdocuments, most of them hard to classify by the old categories. Many librarians, scientists, and government agencies are trying to invent more satisfactory indexing systems that will keep all these bits of information from getting lost through inadequate indexing or cross-indexing. It all makes me think we may be approaching a time when scholars and scientists will find it convenient to memorize the index numbers of their own interests, and to arrange that only the papers and documents will be sent to them whose index numbers coincide with theirs. ‘I’m 437 and 411.293. What are you?” Today the doctor can flip through his medical journal when it arrives in the mail, stopping at a familiar name or subject or at a figure that interests him. How long before he can scan as quickly and rewardingly a microfilm strip of the same journal, or of all the medical journals? Just as long as it takes for us to begin indexing and cross-indexing articles in advance, so that he can turn instantly to what interests him.

But even if this problem could be solved, we would still have to evaluate. The outsider cannot know what is important and what is trivial or wrong in the books of category 411.293, except by getting the evaluations of one or two insiders; and he will still have to decide for himself whether their judgment is reliable. Every time we use other men’s knowledge, we face this question, whether we are conscious of it or not. Can we doubt that even the young Socrates was confronted by it when he acquired, from his teachers or from his own experience and judgment, his ideas of what problems not to be interested in and what books not to read?

When we look down at the world’s complete knowledge, we see with sudden and total clarity that what an education can give us is not any mere accumulation of reading, no matter how vast, but relationships and judgment. A man who has well-educated himself knows how the different parts of the body of knowledge fit together, even though he cannot know all the details except in one or two tiny corners. He knows which parts are generally relevant to his interests. He decides for himself when to read the Gee-Whiz reporters or the digesters and when to leave their tidbits untouched. He knows what he wants to explore more carefully or contribute to, and what he does not. But even in areas outside his own competence, where he must to some degree trust the experts and eva1uators—as Socrates and Aristotle and every other philosopher or synthesizer has had to trust them—he can still tell sloppy reasoning from sound, and to some degree judge these various experts for himself.

Those universal men who were supposed to know something about every science are not really celebrated for the completeness of their information but for this kind of selection and comparison, judgment and insight. Their learning was microscopic, compared to all human learning, as it always will be; their judgment was large, as it always can be.

The reason we do not have such men in our time is that we lack confidence in our choice and judgment. We think we can make up for it by specializing and devouring. As scholars and scientists and philosophers and teachers, we get started in one specialty and often go on all our lives without ever looking around. We feel surrounded and small, and we talk about being overwhelmed by the sweep and complexity of modern knowledge. In every university we see scholars bloated from trying to gulp too much, 14 hours a day, until they cease to be men at all. As one of our wits has said, The thirst for knowledge should have a sphincter on it. I have often heard scientists say, “There is just too much!” But we need not feel this way any more than the scholars of old; what one man can know is not significantly smaller now than it was then, compared to the vast unknown total. A universal man is simply a man who chooses and combines and refuses to be overwhelmed.

The Beginnings of a Brain

I think that if we ever come to have widespread microlibraries, adequately indexed, with the whole world of learning and letters immediately at hand, this universal attitude will also become widespread. Without it, in fact, no one will be able to employ a universal microlibrary effectively. Some people will use the library to read for pleasure—almost everyone, let us hope. Some will use it to look up scholarly, technical, or managerial answers; some, to find points of departure for their own new contributions to knowledge. But I think all of these users will acquire an air of intellectual comprehension and assurance, like a man with a brain who knows what he is about.

For the microlibrary will begin to have some of the coherent qualities of a brain. If all our knowledge can be brought together in a familiar system within everyone’s reach, the increase in the intelligence and effectiveness of our behavior should be astonishing. The world’s knowledge, kept up to date, will become a closer and closer adjunct to all kinds of decision making and action. The microscopic library, with its interrelated information instantly accessible, will make possible a new awareness of relations and consequences, a widespread and rapid interplay of human ideas and inventions, and a directness of collective decision such as we could not have imagined without it. Because it is small and closely knit, delays and uncertainties will be reduced as they are in a real brain. In our use of it we can therefore begin to approach the unity and directness of our own complex biological decision-making and memory system, with its similarly interrelated and microscopic neuron elements, similarly packed in a compact space, within a single skull. Microlibraries would be a memory and the beginnings of a universal brain for the whole human race.

Footnotes (amended 1966)

  1. “Microbooks” is a trademark copyrighted by Microbooks, Inc., of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The term as used in this chapter, however, does not refer to their particular (and interesting) commercial products, but uses the prefix “micro” only in the scientific sense of “one-millionth,” to refer to a whole class of possible books reduced in physical size by about this factor compared to ordinary book sizes.
  2. R.P. Feynman, Engineering and Science (Caltech) 20, 20-25 (February 1960).
  3. Since the original publication of this chapter, a system like this has come on the commercial market. This is the “photo-Chromic Micro Image (PCMI)” system of the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio, and it offers a reduction of about 220 times in linear dimensions or 48,000 times in area. At this Company’s exhibit at New York World’s Fair in 1964, contact prints of the Holy Bible at this scale were available, with the 1,245 pages of the Bible printed into less than two square inches. The text was sharp and easily readable at the magnification of an ordinary biological microscope. This is not quite as great as the scale of reduction whose potentialities are explored later in this chapter, but it would make it possible to have a library of all the world’s book on one wall of an office, and it demonstrates the feasibility of the ideas outlined here and how close their implications are to realization.
  4. Direct electronic storage of books—without printing—either on magnetic tape or on computer drums is now, in 1966, much more feasible for large libraries than it was when this chapter was written. Some enthusiasts think that the new “time-sharing” systems will make it possible to store all recored information in a big computer serving a network of consoles in many cities, and that this will be a much faster and better solution to the indexing and retrieval problems than any photographic microstorage. See J.C.R. Licklider, Libraries of the Future (M.I.T. Press, 1965). However, the photographic microlibraries discussed here could be available many years before complete computer libraries, and would long continues to be valuable for private individuals or for underdeveloped countries that were not connected to the computer network or could not afford the computer terminal costs; and their images could be “read into” local television systems in just the way described.

John Rader Platt was a physicist and biophysicist. From 1965 until his retirement in 1977, he was professor of physics and associate director of the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan. From 1945 to 1965, he taught at the University of Chicago (source). This essay was taken from his collection The Step to Man, published in 1966 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This essay was digitised by Pierce Gleeson. Please contact him if you are the copyright holder and wish to request its removal. The decorative background is an altered contact sheet from the Archivo Biográfico de Espana, Portugal e Iberoamérica made available by Frédéric Bisson.